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It might be time for city to change its approach

April 12, 2013

To attract the Washington County Board of Education central office complex to downtown, Hagerstown Mayor David Gysberts said the city was willing to acquire land, demolish undesirable buildings, build a parking deck and fast-track the project.

It could have added up to millions of dollars worth of incentives, not to mention a valuable workaround of the city’s notoriously difficult permitting and regulatory process.

It wasn’t enough to entice the school board to move its offices downtown, but it could be enough to lure others.

If the city is willing to do this for government office space, why is it not pursuing private development just as aggressively? Private development, after all, would pay taxes, giving the city a chance to recoup at least a little of its investment. The board’s central offices, by contrast, would have paid nothing.

It is true that the central offices are employee-intensive, although there was disagreement about how much a couple dozen administrators and their support staff would contribute economically to downtown.

The city might consider taking a page out of its own (recently composed) playbook and treat private companies wishing to locate downtown the same way it offered to treat the school board.

Might there be more than a few small businesses that would rejoice at hearing that in return for moving downtown, the city would be willing to acquire land, demolish undesirable buildings, provide free employee parking and fast-track the project?

It could be a major expansion of the philosophy that led the city to create the business incubator at 60 W. Washington St. and offer loans to help Duvinage expand.

These potential new businesses might not have as many employees as the school board individually, but it wouldn’t take a whole lot of new companies to equal a central office in terms of economic benefit and downtown foot traffic. Indeed, this goal might even be met with fewer giveaways than the city offered the school board.

Even better, a diversified collection of small businesses would fill up more storefronts and could conceivably generate even more interest among other small entrepreneurs. What better reputation could the city get than being thought of as small-business friendly?

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